I am, like most other people, becoming slightly disillusioned with lists. Everything now seems to be broken down into comfortable bite-sized chunks so we can easily scan through the detritus and come up with the gold, but of course many of us are looking in the same places for advice on where to find the cultural treasure. This list is no different, and most things on it could hardly be described as having been mined from the underground, but hopefully it will lead people in a few interesting directions. I’ll probably add to it as I remember things too.
Inspiration in 2014
Under The Skin – Jonathan Glazer -This undisputedly future classic was my favourite film of the year by a mile. Creatively inspiring and visually unsettling in equal measure, for me this sets the benchmark for modern horror films. The fact that it features real life in Glasgow is an added bonus.
The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane – Not a new book but my favourite read of the year. It captures the lure of the wild and the history of humanity’s interaction with it, the intersections of religion, trade and nature. And it’s beautifully written.
Sonno – Alessandro Cortini – Beautiful spacious music. To quote the press release: “‘Sonno’ was recorded in hotel rooms, using a Roland MC 202 through a delay pedal, recorded direct, sometimes into a small portable speaker system”. Simplicity.
Noyzelab Aphex Twin Interview – Dave Noyze – The Syro album came with a glut of new Aphex interviews and press coverage, but this is something different. Essentially a rambling email conversation between two friends, Aphex covers a tonne of bases and talks about anything that interests him, largely to do with music-making and synths. What comes across really is just the sheer enthusiasm for creative processes and thought, rather than the usual more self-conscious and press-savvy persona. The article is technical, personal, deep and very inspiring. It was taken down shortly after, in typical Aphex fashion, but you’ll be able to get it through Google cache.
Anna Meredith – A new discovery for me this year, and a great example of the breaking down of the boundaries between composition and electronic music, orchestral instruments and machines. There were two electronic EPs over the last 2 years and a fair amount of composition, and it’s all pretty free in terms of its direction and influences, with maybe the 80s being the most obvious marker. Check out the ‘HandsFree’ composition for the Proms, pleasingly un-stuffy considering the venue and brilliantly imaginative.
Mr Turner – Mike Leigh – Was totally blown away by Mr Turner. It’s the combined work of hundreds of people, working at their highest pitch, that creates a film as good as this. It is as close as it is possible to get to walking into the past. Timothy Spall is outstanding, the direction is unfussy and classic, the score is excellent. Great film.
Advanced Yoga Practices – Easy Lessons For Ecstatic Living – Yogani – Not a new book, even to me, but I’ve included it in my list due to its ongoing importance to my creative life. Encompassing the whole of yoga (including meditation, breathing techniques, mental practise), this is the ultimate aid in leading a happier, more artistic life. It takes discipline of course, but the point is that it follows a system that anyone can follow, and that it works. I imagine it will take me a decade to work my way through everything in the book, and there is another volume after that, but it can be taken at whatever pace suits and even the first two practices in the book will make vast changes over the long term. For anyone who has been tempted by TM, this is almost identical but without any of the culty money-soaking restrictions in learning.
Lindell Plugins – I bought relatively little software this year, probably because I have most of what I need already and unless something is providing something new I can probably live without it. One area however where computers are still improving rapidly is in providing ever more analogue-sounding solutions. For me the Lindell plugins are another jump down the road towards plugins that sound like hardware. The 6X-500 pre-amp has a musicality that is lacking in all my other software, with the possible exception of the Soundtoys plugs, and at $100 each they are great value. The EQ and compressor are also excellent and probably only the UAD plugs can match them. My UAD no longer works though thanks to UA and Apple’s ludicrous upgrade program so it’s all about the native stuff from now on.
Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill – Micachu – Another high point in Mica Levi’s year, this is a cassette release for Demdike Stare’s excellent label that luckily comes with a download version. There are hints of the Under the Skin score here and there and a wealth of other sonic experiments all melded into a rambling ambient mood-piece. It works on the level of stream of consciousness, constantly engaging your mind with new ideas and new timbres. Highly creative and pretty esoteric.
Braids, Grids, Elements – Mutable Instruments – My wee modular synth is the greatest gift to creativity this year, and although every johnny and his dog has one, the beauty of them is that they reward hard work, and that no two are exactly alike. Mutable Instruments make modules that just seem to fit with my way of thinking. They are dextrous and flexible, but simplified in their operation so that every element counts; the essence of good design. Braids is my only oscillator but can produce a staggering array of tones, and a wild array of control signals too, whilst the upcoming Elements module fits exactly with my personal taste in physical modelling. The company also has a great open-source ethos and brilliant customer support.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – Thom Yorke – Of all the hype albums this year, most have left me cold or underwhelmed, the focus on novelty over musicality now having reached an apparent high-point. Some of it has been technically and texturally fascinating, and some certainly breaking new ground, but all of it has lacked the ability to hold the attention. Thom Yorke’s album got a pretty mixed reception, presumably because it just seemed too simple for today’s demanding hacks, but it is its simplicity which is its strength. Straight songs, some beautiful chords. I really don’t need much more.
Kaivo – Madrona Labs – I made no secret of my love for Madrona’s Aalto. It pretty much formed the sonic background of all my material last year, including the Wraetlic album, and re-inspired me after a long period of ill-health. Kaivo is the follow up and occupies totally different sonic territory, covering physical modelling and granular synthesis, and doing so in a way unlike any other software synth. It has maintained the uncluttered interface style of Aalto that encourages experimentation and makes it such a pleasure to use, and also offers microtonal scales unlike most other synths. There is a new Madrona synth out this year and it promises to be just as ground-breaking. Great software.
Hidden In Plain Sight – Andrew Thomas – I like a bit of physics, and have read a fair bit over the last few years, some bafflingly complex and some refreshingly straightforward. I do better with the straightforward stuff. Anything which addresses humanity and human consciousness’ place in the universe is infinitely fascinating, and understanding just how bizarre and limitless our universe really is puts all those dogmas in perspective. This book comes from humble roots, being written by a physicist better known for his website (www.whatisreality.co.uk) than his Nobel-winning papers, but it elucidates something that has wrapped many physicists in knots for decades. Namely, why and how the two largest areas of physical theory are mutually exclusive in their areas of description. Quantum physics covers the tiny, relativity covers the massive and both are useless at describing the other. This book simply posits a theory as to why that is and how both theories are connected, and what that tells us about existence, and I found it entirely convincing. A great addition to any concept of existence.
[EDIT] I’ve read physicists grumble about this book online as it makes no attempt at a cohesive mathematical theory but that is, I think, doing it a dis-service. Read it as physical philosophy and I think its value is certain.
Jodorowsky’s Dune – Frank Pavich – Like all the best documentaries, it isn’t just that the story grips you, but that the themes are inspiring or moving on a deeper level. There is no doubt that Jodorowsky’s film of ‘Dune’ would have been amazing, but it is the sheer creative audacity and energy of the man that is most inspiring. There are always lessons to be learnt from older, wiser, more mental practitioners, and Jodorowsky is one of the great originals.
What Do Artists Do All Day – BBC – My favourite TV series for a few years now, it follows a single well known artist over the course of a few days, usually leading up to a particular exhibition or show. It really is the most inspiring thing in the world just to watch artists go about their business and create. All the methods, all the approaches, all the attitudes are so different but all lead in the same direction: the need to create something meaningful. From comic art to taxidermy to photography, the full spectrum of art is represented.
Under The Skin – Mica Levi – Absolutely perfect this score. Reinforcing the off-kilter oddness of the film, but also softening it where necessary, it is refreshing to see filmmakers using left field musical options rather than just yet another dull-as-fuck straight-from-orchestral-sample-library copy-paste bore-score with added taiko drums. Favourite album of the year on its own too.
A Field In England – Ben Wheatley – Frankly mental film about English Civil War soldiers being used by an alchemist to find treasure whilst out of their minds on magic mushrooms. The kind of film you just have to let absorb your attention and roll with, to sink on to its own plane, and not ask too many questions of. Beautifully shot in black and white and ending with one of the best trip sequences ever put to film, it bursts with creative endeavour. Oh yeah, and it also had several of the best film posters of the year.